The Papers of the Metaphysical Society

The Metaphysical Society

Earlier this year Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England and Oxford University Press published a very handsome collection of the Metaphysical Society papers. Dedicated to the memory of John Burrow and Frank Turner, the editors’ introduction offers insight into the background and legacy of this remarkable society. In 1869 at the Willis Rooms in London, W.B. Carpenter, James Hinton, R.H. Hutton, James Knowles, James Martineau, Roden Noel, Charles Pritchard, J.R. Seeley, Arthur Stanley, Alfred Tennyson, John Lubbock, and Thomas Henry Huxley established a debating experiment that would last for the next eleven years. Others would soon join, including a striking variety of religious figures, from Anglican to Catholic to Unitarian to deist, agnostic, even atheist.

Previous scholarship on the Metaphysical Society is slim. According to the editors, aside from Alan Willard Brown’s 1947 book, The Metaphysical Society, “no other work has ever been produced on the subject apart from a handful of articles and the obvious passages in major scholarly books on Victorian intellectual history” (9). One of the most essential elements of the Metaphysical Society—i.e. its Minute Book—was only recently discovered, at Harvard University in 2010. The editors list a number of books, biographies, and articles since the 1940s that mention or discuss different aspects of the society, thus bringing anyone interested in the Metaphysical Society up to speed (9-14).

The history of the papers is complicated. At one point, the Bodleian Library had a near-complete set. A full set however is located at the Library of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and seems to have belonged to Mark Pattison, a member of the Society. Most of the papers were expanded and published in popular Victorian periodicals, such as the Contemporary Review, Fortnightly Review, Nineteenth Century, Macmillan’s Magazine, and Mind.

According to the editors, the Metaphysical Society “took up challenging issues that have long resisted resolution and attempted, in the best tradition of collegiate discussion groups, to arrive at a better understanding” (25). In other words, this was an attempt at compromise. Ultimately, however, they failed. But by “examining the nature of their failure,” the editors reassure us, “we will better understand the similarities and differences of the schools of thought represented.”

The 95 papers collected here come with a short biography of the paper’s author, as well as a summary of the main argument. The editors also helpfully indicate whether the paper was subsequently published and in what periodical. As Lightman notes in his acknowledgments, the Metaphysical Society papers are a “Holy Grail” to students or scholars interested in Victorian science and religion.